A Look Into African-Americans In Film And Culture

Photo and quote courtesy of Lee Daniels Entertainment

A great realization spread over me as I watched Lee Daniels The Butler with a good friend of mine last weekend: African-American films and movies based on African-American history are exploding in popularity and are becoming more frequent in today’s theaters.

Don’t believe me? Look at the movies being released in just this year alone. You have 42, a biographical picture about Jackie Robinson, the first African ballplayer to play on a dominantly caucasian team. There’s Fruitvale Station, a tragedy about a young black father discriminated and eventually killed by a white police officer in a subway station. There, of course, is Lee Daniel’s The Butler, based on real-life African-American butler Eugene Allen who served in the White House 34 years from the civil rights era all the way to when Barack Obama became president. And being released later on this year is Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, a biographical picture about anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, and 12 Years A Slave, a true story about a free black man who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery.

Recently speaking to me about the new trend on African-American cinema is award-winning filmmaker and film professor Ya’ke Smith, who recently released his feature debut titled Wolf, a spiritual drama about a young African-American boy who was sexually molested by his pastor and the emotional reprecussions that followed.

“It looks great,” he told me about 12 Years A Slave. Chiwetel man, I’m telling you, that guy, its time for him to get his Oscar. I mean, he’s been doing some great work. I’m really looking forward to that film.”

This isn’t the first year to feature stories promoting equality and nondiscrimination. Since 2009, an increasing number of films follow the African population and of the mistreatment they’ve experienced through America’s history. The Blind SideInvictus, Precious, The HelpLincoln, and Django Unchained all fit during this timestamp.

“I wanna say Django just for the fact that its comedy,” said film senior Avery Hartwell, telling me why Django was his favorite out of the bunch. “I mean, of course its a little history, but its funny. And of course you have some movies that are like Fruitvale Station, you can’t make that funny. It’s serious, of course, and you have to take that seriously. But I like to learn while still laughing, you know? And Django was about learning history, but also laughing about it.”

THE SLEEPER HITS

For the past four years, we’ve had more than eleven films being made about the African-American crusade. In the past, it would be rare to see even two of this genre in the same year.

I notice that the most popular period for African-American films were in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, according to data pulled from IMDB. Films such Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Best Picture winner  Driving Miss Daisy were both released in 1989, while Boyz N The HoodMalcolm X and  Menace II Society were consecutively released from 1991 to 1993.

“African-american cinema of the 90’s is very different from what you’re seeing right now,” Smith said to me. “Again, you had the Spike Lees, the John Singletons, who were really commenting on popular culture  and what was going on at that time. You just had a slew of films that were really dealing with what was going on at the time because these filmmakers were allowed to comment on what was going on and they were able to do it without much censorship.”

As the 90’s faded into the 2000’s, African-American films became as scarce and rare as a sleeper hit in a movie theater.  Of course you would have movies such as The Hurricane come out in 1999, or other films such as Antwone Fisher in 2002 or Glory Road in 2006, but during that period African-American cinema was not as prominent as the typical American blockbusters, including the highly-revered Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings series.

CONVERGENCE AND CHANGE

In 2009, two things happened that profoundly impacted the black community: Barack Obama assuming office on Jan. 20, and the racial discrimination and murder of Oscar Grant III in Oakland, California, which inspired the 2013 movie Fruitvale Station.

“Since Obama has become president, there has been this whole new emergence on the conversation of race,” Smith said. “This whole idea of how African Americans are seen in this country. This whole idea of the African-American struggle to get to where Obama is now. This whole idea of ‘does racism still exist.’ I think all these conversations, because of Obama’s presidency, have started to happen, and then in people’s minds its like ‘Wait a minute, we need to tell our stories again. We need to tell from whence we came. We were once slaves who then were free, then we ended up being domestics, then we ended up being Presidents.”

The last sentence specifically reminded me of a key moment in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, where Forest Whitaker, after facing a lifetime of unfairness and cruelty as both a slave and a manservant, looked at a television screen with tears in his eyes as he saw Barack Obama become the first black president to be inaugurated into office.

But that wasn’t all that influenced this whole exploding trend: Smith and I also discussed the events of Fruitvale Station, in which he also compared to the racial discrimination and beating of Rodney King in 1991.

“You had a cop that got, I think he was given two years, and he got out in months,” Smith said about Johannes Mehserle, the police officer who involuntarily murdered Grant III. “You know, that’s not really justice, right? So yes, when that stuff starts happening again, we begin to talk about race again because it sort of opens up these old wounds that many of us thought were healed. But when you start to see something like that again, you realize that these wounds are not healed.”

Advertising senior and NAACP president Michael Coleman gave me a different theory on why these movies are becoming so frequent in 2013.

“I feel like specifically the most recent movies I feel like have something to do with the upcoming year of 2014 because that’s going to be the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement,” Coleman said. “So, I feel like that could have a large influence on why so many movies have come out recently, and also just because the content in those movies are factual, and they are based on real events that happened in the past.”

WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

The trend of African-American films does not stop in 2013. More films are currently in production and slated for release in 2014. Two of those films include Belle, a true story about mixed-raced princess Dido Elizabeth Belle and Get On Up, a biographical picture on the life of African singer James Brown, directed by Tate Taylor of The Help and starring Chadwick Boseman from 42.

“I feel like its just going to get more and more prevalent in society,” Coleman said. “Not only in movies, but it can happen through music, poetry, anything else can come about, but I do feel like the African-American history and especially civil rights is about to become something major in society and people are really starting to take a further look into it.”

Hartwell couldn’t be more excited and hopes the trend will continue as long as it can.

“To tell you the truth, I’m a visual person,” Hartwell remarked. “Movies, of course, is how I learn, because I’m a visual thinker. So I hope that they keep at least putting out two or three movies about our history, just showing that. I hope there’s always somebody that wants to be an African-American director or producer that forgoes on not just making movies, but continuing our history through the years to come.”

Smith was especially excited for the upcoming reemergence of African-American cinema and the attention its getting from the general public.

“I think that this is a very exciting time for African-American filmmakers,” Smith said. “I know that it gives me hope, honestly. It’s like ‘Okay, these films are being produced, and maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe this door is opening.’”

More than anything else, however, Smith hopes that African-Americans don’t just get their own movies: he eventually wants them to blend with culture in the same way any caucasian actor would.

“What I really want to see is not the film that is necessarily dealing with my history, but is dealing with who I am presently as a man,” Smith said. “As an African-American person. Meaning, I want to see African-Americans in Gravity. I want to see African-Americans in whatever the popular film is right now. Because I don’t need to just be in films that are about history, or whatever. I am a man. Let me be that. Don’t just say you have to play this kind of role.”

Another film scheduled for a 2014 release is Annie, based on the original comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray and starring African-American actors Quevenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx.

In the original comic strip, you will notice that both of their characters were originally white.

-David Dunn

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